ECSOTW#20: The Genuine Voice of His Unlovely State

wendy james

KEVIN DAVIS: Elvis Costello’s “Gwendolyn Letters” (the name he gave to the collection of songs he penned for former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James, all of which she subsequently recorded on her 1993 album Now Ain’t the Time For Your Tears) are among the man’s few true remaining rarities, having been omitted from the great Rhino reissue campaign of ’01-’05 and currently available only to those with a fondness for hunting down out-of-print CD singles on eBay (or to those with internet street smarts). While the record that James made out of these tunes was a critical and commercial flop, it has understandably taken on a sort of curio status among Costello fans, the unlikely home for an entire album’s worth of material that our hero supposedly tossed off over a long weekend and then gave up for adoption. But these songs are significant for several reasons: First, they represent Costello’s first real dalliance with small ensemble rock-and-roll since disbanding the Attractions in 1986, and indeed they quite directly point the way to his next proper indulgence in the field, 1994’s Brutal Youth (whose opening track, “Pony St.,” sounds like a more sophisticated version of the melody that comprises “Puppet Girl” from these sessions). Second, though not to be underestimated – they ain’t a bad bunch of songs. After the lush eclecticism of Spike and Mighty Like a Rose and academic exercise of The Juliet Letters, it’s hard not to hear Elvis reveling in the immediacy of these recordings, rediscovering the simpler pleasures of volume and spontaneity amidst the increasing sophistication of his post-Attractions career.

“Do You Know What I’m Saying?” is probably my favorite of these demos, in part because of the completely uncontrived presence of the recording (it’s hard to imagine anyone spent any time at all “mixing” this), but also in part because of the perfectly Dylanesque couplets, which take pains to describe a lowbrow female entertainer (“She danced like an ambulance/Talked like a cartoon mouse/She took off her clothes/And it brought down the house”) and some scuzz-bucket dude that’s affiliated with her in some way (“The male counterpart – stupid, brutal, and rich/Lies under the arm of the world like an itch”). This is hardly uncharted territory for Costello, but his finger-pointing is timeless and forever vindicating, and the rhymes are expertly placed – both within the linear structure of the lyrics and as accessories to the music. I also love Costello’s detached vocal delivery – unlike other proclamations of judgment from atop his high horse, here he sounds not like a lover scorned or the bitter recipient of a rejected advance but like an unflappable cool guy whose use for his subjects begin and end with the function they serve him in song. But to answer his question, I don’t know what he’s saying – the lyrics in the song don’t seem to require a rhetorical question to solicit further investigation into their meaning. And weirdly, this is the second song from this time period to mention a “cartoon mouse” (“You Tripped at Every Step” being the other).

I know Costello’s version of “Do You Know What I’m Saying?” isn’t a “proper” studio recording, but I nevertheless love the uncompromised, almost tangible quality of the recording – Costello’s guitar feels like it’s coming out of a small practice amplifier a few feet across the room. So many of Elvis’s demos capture this in-the-room vibe – the early acoustic demos, the Spike home tapes, the Church Studios recordings. Fingers crossed that Elvis releases “The Gwendolyn Letters” as a Nebraska-style release sometime down the road, his disillusionment with the recording industry dies off and he finally starts treating us to his archives again.

JORGE FARAH: I recently went through the arduous process of reassembling my iTunes library after my old computer suddenly crashed. I painstakingly scoured through old hard drives and dropboxes to cull together my old digital collection, then went through the debris deleting duplicates, filling in missing track information, and ensuring everything was accompanied by the correct album art. It’s the kind of frustratingly snail-paced, almost-completely-unrewarding exercise that only the obsessive-compulsive or the desperately-bored would subject themselves to. All in all it took about 3 weeks. By the end of the process, I found that my Elvis Costello artist folder was made up of 1296 songs across 92 albums. If that number seems astronomically high, it’s because it includes compilations, reissues, collaborations, outtakes, several live albums and bootlegs, all filed under the artist name “Elvis Costello” for convenience. That is easily the highest track count for a single musician in my entire collection. This is all to say: I own a lot of Costello albums, and I’ve heard a lot of Elvis Costello songs. Until Kevin brought this song to my attention this week, I’d never heard “Do You Know What I’m Saying”.

Of course I was aware of the Gwendolyn Letters as a kind of “holy grail” of Costello releases—seems people have been clamoring for some kind of official release for these demo home recordings for years—but it never occurred to me to actually seek them out and listen to them. And I’m glad I didn’t, because holy cow this is a nifty little mini-album—scuzzy, almost haphazardly-thrown-together, playful and raw, without too much time to get overly precious about the compositions or the performances. Brutal Youth would partially follow this approach with songs like “Kinder Murder” and “20% Amnesia”. It’s a real thrill to listen to. And “Do You Know What I’m Saying” is probably the best track on the album, a direct precursor to “All This Useless Beauty” (you can easily sing the verse melody of one over the other’s music). An elegant ballad delivered in a stark and unadorned way, it reminds me of earlier songs like “Satellite” and “Harpies Bizarre” in its style of storytelling. And Kevin is absolutely correct: EC’s understated, almost-merely-functional vocal approach gives this song a certain listlessness that would likely be missing from a proper album recording of it. Wendy James’s album version is predictably fuller and better-produced but still relatively close to EC’s demo. The single version, however (re-recorded in an attempt to potentially score something resembling a hit for an album had turned out to be a huge commercial flop) is probably closer to what Elvis imagined for the arrangement– and it’s actually quite worth listening to— but I’m glad we have this demo recording as a grittier alternative.

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